In the summer of 1992, I was based in a small town in Idaho, fighting wildfires. I rented a room in a ramshackle trailer house, one in a cluster of faded mobile homes squatting on barren, sun-blistered ground, but the price was right. I’d spend a lot of time on fires in the mountains, sleeping in the dirt, so I wasn’t fussy.
The afternoon I moved in, my landlord and I shared a beer, sunk into the cushions of a tattered sofa. The front door was propped open to a sere June breeze, and suddenly an adult rottweiler sprang up the steps and inside. It padded past us to the bathroom, and we heard it lap from the toilet. In a moment it passed us again, and with nary a sidelong glance disappeared outside.
“What’s your dog’s name?” I asked.
“Not my dog,” he said. “But you don’t mess with a rottweiler.”
He told me the dog belonged to Wanda, who lived in the trailer next door. “She’s bad news,” he said.
Since Wanda’s trailer was barely 20 feet away, I soon formed an impression. Amid a fugue of shouts, hoots, cries and angry inflections, and what I plainly viewed, I gleaned that Wanda was a fiftyish divorcee with rough edges. Her son worked on a logging crew and regularly left his preschool daughter in Wanda’s care. Unfamiliar vehicles approached Wanda’s trailer day and night, and didn’t linger. During my first week, police visited at least once. The rottweiler was named Thor and passed his days on a short chain anchored to a porch post.
One evening after a trip to the supermarket, I exited my truck clutching a full shopping bag. Wanda was sitting on her porch smoking a cigarette, her granddaughter playing nearby. I nodded as I walked toward my door, and Wanda called out to the little girl.
“Hey, honey! Go steal that man’s groceries!”
The child ran over and clawed at my bag. Wanda cackled and coughed. Thor was alert, his chain taut. I forced out a polite chuckle as I raised the bag out of reach, but the girl grasped my leg, giggling, and I half-dragged her to the steps before she let go and skipped back to her leering grandma.
My colleague Jay was also renting a room in the trailer, and one hot night he lounged outside. Wanda suddenly strutted around the corner into his face and demanded to know his name. He stammered out an alias. She reached into her purse and said, “I should just shoot you!” Jay froze, and Wanda brandished a lipstick, chortling at his alarm. Next morning, Jay moved out and spent the rest of the summer camped in his car at our Forest Service base.
On an off-duty day in late July I was in the trailer, lost in a book, but was startled by Thor’s bark, then the sudden roar of an engine. I peered between window slats at Wanda’s trailer. Her son had fired up a chain saw, and as Wanda howled in rage he mowed down a rank of potted flowers she kept on the porch rail. Thor continued to bark from a crouch under the steps. In a minute it was done, and Wanda’s curses trailed her grimly smirking boy back to his truck.
Among the things I missed about home in Minnesota was the companionship of our dog. On days when work kept me in town and I returned to the trailer in the evening, I’d call out, “Hey, Thor! How you doin’, buddy?” Usually he was lying in the dirt under the steps, his nose between his paws, and he’d raise his head, ears perked. In the shadow of his makeshift shelter, I couldn’t tell if his tail wagged. I longed to pet Thor, but didn’t dare approach. Not because of him, but for the unpredictability of his master. Maybe she did have a gun. I wasn’t as spooked as Jay, but Wanda and her clan were indeed bad news, and I had all the excitement I needed up in the mountains.
By the end of August, snow settled into the higher elevations, and shorter days with cooler afternoon highs ended the fire season frenzy. The evening of Sept. 4, I stowed my meager baggage in the back of my truck, then savored a couple rounds of farewell beer with our fire crew at a local tavern.
Next morning, I skipped down the steps of the trailer, eager for the highway and planning that day to drive as far as Miles City, Mont. But as I reached for the door of my truck, there was Thor, fixed to his post. It was before sunup, and I hadn’t expected to see him outside. He was staring at me, and I froze. Did he know? Over the past week I’d wrestled with an idea that had simmered for a month: When I left, I’d take Thor.
It was theft, of course, and though stealing Thor from Wanda seemed somehow less onerous than say, shoplifting, it was nevertheless illegal. Besides, so far as I knew Thor was devoted to his owner. And wouldn’t Wanda miss Thor? I’d made judgments about her, but I didn’t walk in her shoes, and unless you’re some kind of sociopath, you don’t live with a dog without becoming attached.
Still, he didn’t seem happy to me, and other than the time he’d been over to slurp from our toilet, I’d never seen him untethered. I rationalized that he didn’t understand how much better his life could be — never chained, romping in our yard, hunting grouse with me in cool autumn woods. At one point, I decided to do the deed and scribbled a list of stuff to buy for the journey: dog food and treats, a bowl, a leash, maybe some canine tranquilizers. But then I wondered how he’d react to 1,300 miles on the road. What if he tired of the adventure? What if he escaped at a remote wayside rest in North Dakota? And would he get along with our dog in Minnesota? I vacillated, but always rammed up against the fact that it was robbery. He belonged to someone else. I discarded my list and quit thinking about it.
Then that dawn. There he was, gazing at me. I met his eyes, and felt an intense conviction that if I opened the passenger door and released his chain, he’d sprint to the truck and leap inside. I could see us motoring away, Thor sitting regally, peering out the windshield at his new life.
Instead I turned away, got into the truck and left.
Almost three decades later I still occasionally conjure him there at the post, his chain draped in the dirt, his eyes locked on my face. I think: should’ve taken him. I didn’t. It was correct behavior, but I’m not sure if it was right.
My feeling for Thor speaks, perhaps, to our evolving sense of animals as closer kin than we considered them even a couple decades ago. A few years back, just before Christmas, I returned home from a week on the road and listened to a pair of phone messages.
The first was a neighbor who lives a half-mile down the road. Had I seen Tug, his dog? Tug occasionally hiked over to visit. The message was three days old.
The second was a deputy sheriff, Nick, whom I worked with in my capacity as local fire chief. It was two days old, and he requested a call. I did, and he related the following tale: Around midnight, he’d found a dog in a highway ditch about three miles away, who’d apparently been hit by a car and suffered a broken leg. As he was assessing the situation a young couple pulled up and asked if they could help. Nick radioed his dispatcher, who contacted a veterinarian in a nearby town who agreed to treat the dog, and the couple transported it. Nick was hoping I might know the owner, and he described the dog. It was Tug.
“Where did they take him?” I asked.
“Call Don at dispatch, he knows.”
I did, and Don scrolled through his log and found the information.
Delighted, I was able to return the call to my neighbor and tell him I knew where Tug was.
The events were a communal act of compassion; people going the extra mile. Since, at the time, Tug was unidentified there were no personal connections nor incentive for external reward. It was done for its own sake, and I suspect that not all that long ago Tug might’ve ended up taking a mercy-killing bullet and that would’ve been an unremarkable cultural norm. This outcome was far better, and not only for Tug.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is a veteran firefighter, both wildland and municipal, and author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.